I have to admit to being a fan of beer festivals. Hardly a revelation, I’m from the British Isles where, if beer drinking were an Olympic sport, we’d be a nation of medal winners. These are heady days to be a beer devotee though. There has been a flourishing of innovation and creativity in beer making over the last decade or so, with dozens of ‘micro-breweries’ breaking into a market place desperate for variety and quality.
In the Netherlands, where for centuries they’ve had to endure the sneers of Belgian beer makers, the uninspiring market leaders, Heineken, are giving way to a new breed of brewers with a different vision of Dutch beer. These are great days to be a beer drinker in the Netherlands.
To celebrate this revolution in drinking habits, The Hague is the venue for an annual Dutch Beer Tasting Festival – I think they add the word ‘tasting’ to give it an air of class, as if beer drinkers are just misguided wine aficionados. One of the highlights of the festival isn’t beer-related though, it’s the venue itself. It’s one of the few times of the year when The Hague’s Grote Kerk opens its doors to the great unwashed.
The Grote Kerk is no longer used for worship except, that is, for three days of beer idolatry every year. Still, holding a beer festival inside a 15th century church that has hosted royal weddings, and even the baptism of the current King of the Netherlands, is a bit surprising. King Willem-Alexander would probably approve though, he had a reputation for hard drinking and wild partying before he took the throne.
The problem, as always when offered a large number of choices, is how you’re going to rationalise which beers to sample. Should you approach it by brewery, style, strength or, my particular favourite, by name. The latter being something of a lucky dip and not really approved of by beer connoisseurs. With over 200 beers on offer from forty-four different breweries, this was never going to be easy.
The organisers had handily grouped all beers by style: Saison, Blond, Zwaar Blond, Meibock, Pale Ale, Licht Donker, Dubbel Bock, Gerstewijn and Houtgelagerd, to name just some of the bewildering options. Some of the more outlandish beer names included Sergeant Pepper, Pussycat, Pulp Fiction, Storm & Bliksem and Greatefull Deaf Queill. This confirmed for me that the culture of modern beer drinking has evolved its own language.
There were even half a dozen alcohol free beers, which an amusing poster in the venue implied was for pregnant women – pregnant women who clearly couldn’t face missing out on a beer festival even if they weren’t drinking alcohol. I can’t imagine anything worse than being sober at a beer festival, having to listen to the exaggerated stories of the drinkers.
The Hague has some great breweries, including the Kompaan, Brouwerij Kwartje, Animal Army Brewery and Brouwerij Scheveningen, from The Hague’s beachside district, all of which were represented. More interesting though, was to try some breweries from further afield that don’t have a market in The Hague.
There were big breweries like Heineken at the festival, as well as some tiny, one man band operations. It meant some variability in the quality, but it was great to try beers from as far afield as Bierbrouwerij Maallust near Groningen in the north; the Duits & Lauret Brouwerij from a tiny village near Utrecht; Trappistenbrouwerij Zundert near the Belgian border; and Brouwerij De Blauwe IJsbeer from the banks of the De Lek river … all providing reasons for a few trips over the summer.